So, you want solar at your school…where do you start?

October 2021

Over 50 Minnesota school districts have already “gone solar,” and funding will soon be available to help even more districts around the state install solar on their campuses.

If you are navigating the solar procurement process for the first time, it may seem intimidating. That’s why we’ve pulled together some helpful hints from folks who have already done it. And…CERTs staff are here to guide you through the process, from start to finish!

Why solar on schools?

Energy cost savings and student learning are often strong motivations for schools to pursue solar. Going solar also offers opportunities for schools to demonstrate environmental leadership and fiscal responsibility to the local community and to the state as a whole.

We had multiple reasons to move forward with this initiative. First, RREAL Solar was in our district and gave us experts in the field in our backyard to lead us on this project. Second, the opportunity to allow students to explore the career fields in alternative energies and for curriculum that could be enhanced. Third, projected cost savings by having solar and how that savings could be re-invested into student learning. Fourth, we wanted to be good stewards of our earth and of our resources as a district.

Dave Endicott, Central Lakes College and Former Superintendent of Pine-River Backus Public Schools

Build your team!

According to Peter Lindstrom, CERTs’ Public Sector Engagement Manager, “the solar procurement process works best when you involve lots of people at the school from Day 1.”

  • School Board, to authorize the solar project and communicate its benefits to the community
  • Superintendent, to provide leadership through the process
  • Financial Manager, to make sure the financials line up
  • Facilities Manager, because they know the school buildings better than anyone
  • Teachers, to identify how solar can be integrated into curriculum
  • Students, who can develop leadership and STEM skills
  • Clean energy experts—like CERTs—who can provide unbiased assistance
  • Electric utility, for electric tariffs and grid interconnection
  • Solar developer, once one is selected
  • Others as needed, such as an attorney to look over contracts

The school board has told me that one of the reasons they were most interested is because of the involvement of students.

Mike Cartwright, Physics Teacher, Mounds View High School

Clear, open communication among these groups is essential to ensuring that decisions can be made in an informed and transparent way. For instance, when South Saint Paul Public Schools participated in Solar Possible (a collaborative solar procurement project co-led by CERTs), SSPPS Director of Finance, Aaron Bushberger, had this to say: “The Solar Possible team had representatives visit with our School Board and answer any questions they had.  This made the decision-making process straightforward and transparent.  When the time came for the School Board to make a decision, they had all of the information they needed to decide to move forward with the project.”

It can be helpful to speak with other schools (and installers) who have installed solar successfully and are seeing financial and educational benefits, and others with clean energy expertise.

Bring in as many experts as you can to guide the discussion.

Dave Endicott, Central Lakes College and Former Superintendent of Pine-River Backus Public Schools

Identifying potential sites

For many schools, the best place for solar is on the roof. In that case, it’s important to find the right roof: it needs to be new enough that it won’t require replacement in the next 20 years, it needs to be structurally sound enough to hold a solar array, and it needs to have enough sunlight.

Some schools may choose ground-mounted solar arrays. There are a variety of reasons for this. The school may not have an appropriate roof. Or the school may have land available and want to have easier access for student learning, as well as avoid any concerns relating to roof warranties, etc.

Schools should consider narrowing down array locations. Ideally solar arrays are located close to the electrical service entrance. If they are on a roof, you need to consider roof age. Installing right after a roof upgrade or repair would be best, but having at least some solar on the ground is nice for publicity and student access for educational benefits.

Eric Buchanan, UMN WCROC and Coach of Morris High School’s Robotics Team, the Plaid Pillagers

Ownership, and contracts, and finances, oh my!

This is where we start getting into the weeds a bit. For some schools, direct purchase may be a option. This is particularly true if there are grants or incentives available, such as from the electric utility. You might also consider the Energy Saving Partnership, a program from the St. Paul Port Authority that provides financing for efficiency and renewable energy to schools and other local governments. Because of a significant loan loss reserve, interest rates are low.

Morris Area High School’s Robotics Team, the Plaid Pillagers, got creative in funding their team’s expenses: they purchased an 8 kW solar array that will provide a funding stream for the robotics program for years to come.

According to team coach Eric Buchanan, “The biggest barrier was finding funding, which we got through a combination of grants—CERTs being the largest—and fundraising the robotics team did through letters to sponsors and dinners in a park.” The team also accessed a solar incentive from Otter Tail Power.

If those are not good options for your school, there’s another way to do solar! Third-party financing is a popular way for schools (and other local governments) to finance renewable energy. Generally, the school enters into a Power Purchase Agreement, paying a fixed price per kWh for power generated by the solar array. The kWh rate is typically lower than the local utility rate. The third-party company installs, owns, operates, and maintains the solar array and can tap into tax benefits not available to the public sector.

According to Peter Lindstrom, “Negotiating the contract isn’t always a quick and easy process. There are a lot of questions to be answered.” Dave Endicott, who led the Pine River-Backus school district through its solar procurement process, agrees. ​“It is far more complicated in working through the contractual details, billing, energy measurements, etc. than anyone could anticipate. It is not just as simple as saying we want solar, installing it and then collecting the energy and savings.”

Fortunately, there is help available. CERTs provides free assistance to schools interested in exploring their solar options. Peter Lindstrom has worked on dozens of solar procurement processes and is available to help your school go solar.

Wait! Wasn't there something about new funding?

Yes! In the omnibus commerce and energy bill enacted by the legislature and signed by the governor in 2021, $16 million was allocated for solar projects on Minnesota’s K-12 schools, including $8 million for schools within Xcel territory, and $8 million for schools outside Xcel territory. Find checklists and resources for accessing the Solar for Schools funds. As Mounds View High School’s Mike Cartwright advised, “Do not wait to take action!”

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